The Chicago Bulls are struggling and center Nikola Vucevic is shouldering the largest percentage of blame. Fans and members of the media have hit him with critiques throughout the year, but now it appears head coach Billy Donovan is indirectly mentioning some of Vucevic’s issues.
The Bulls are just 4-11 over their last 15 games and they have gone from beating all of the teams they should beat, and losing to only the elite squads, to dropping games to a larger group of teams.
The Bulls’ Biggest Issues Are on the Defensive End
Chicago is ranked 22nd in the NBA in defensive efficiency, and that’s far from ideal.
One of the biggest issues on defense is the way Chicago defends the pick-and-roll. The Bulls are seeing pick-and-roll attacks 20.9% of the time, which ranks third in the NBA. The only teams defending more pick-and-rolls is the Utah Jazz and Atlanta Hawks.
The key similarity with those three teams is a particularly weak defender in pick-and-roll situations. While Rudy Gobert is an elite rim protector, his lack of foot speed and agility make him a target in pick-and-rolls. The Hawks’ Trae Young doesn’t fight over screens well and he’s not physical overall, thus Atlanta sees teams attempting to put Young in pick-and-roll.
For Chicago, Vucevic is the mark for other opponents. Like Gobert, Vucevic has a problem defending the pick-and-roll because of his lack of athleticism, and unfortunately, he doesn’t have the elite shot-blocking trait to fall back on like the Jazz all-star. Teams are scoring 1.05 points per possession against the Bulls when Vucevic is involved in pick-and-roll situations defending the roll man. That’s not the worst in the league, but it doesn’t put him amongst the elite bigs defensively.
Frankly, with weak defenders like Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan on the perimeter, the Bulls cannot afford to have an immobile big who is a magnet for pick-and-rolls in the middle. Much has been made of the Bulls playing a drop in pick-and-roll this season.
Donovan Calls Out Vucevic’s Pick-and-Roll Defense
In the event you were wondering if this was a strategy from Donovan, he cleared this up ahead of the team’s tough loss on the road against the New York Knicks. According to Donovan, the Bulls haven’t played “a drop” all season.
The onus is on Vucevic to play the pick-and-roll at screen level, which means coming up to meet the ball handler off the pick and trusting the back end of his defense to rotate to take away the dive or slip from the pick-man.
670 The Score’s Cody Westerlund tweeted these quotes from Donovan on Monday night:
There should be some serious doubts about whether or not Vucevic can consistently play at the level of the screen. His lack of foot speed could lead to the defense being broken down as he attempts to stay with a guard on the switch, or as he tries to recover after the ball has moved away from the trap.
In any case, it is interesting and revealing to hear that the defense Vucevic has been playing most of the season isn’t in line with what Donovan wants from him.
This is a dynamic that will seemingly lead to the Bulls shopping Vucevic in the offseason. He is heading into the final year of his contract and scheduled to make $22 million in 2022-23. It’s not an immovable contract and he could be a fit with a team that has better perimeter defense like the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, Memphis Grizzlies or the Golden State Warriors.
Chicago will try to make due with what they have as they approach the postseason, as they try to avoid the play-in tournament. At one point, that seemed like a foregone conclusion. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Bulls are just one game ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference standings.
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